When I mention the name Howard the Duck, you probably think of the 1986 movie produced by George Lucas that became one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history.
You probably don’t think of Steve Gerber, the man who, in the early 1970s, created Howard the Duck for Marvel Comics.
That is a shame because while Lucas’ movie was a turkey, Gerber’s comics often approached genius.
Gerber died Feb. 10 from complications from pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic lung disease. He was 60.
In the ’70s, Gerber was one of the most creative and influential writers in comics. He brought the irreverent, satirical attitude of underground comics to the superhero genre.
As Gerber’s friend and fellow writer Mark Evanier tells it, a job offer from Marvel editor Roy Thomas “rescued” Gerber from the drudgery of writing advertising copy. At Marvel, Gerber soon took over the writing duties on “Adventure into Fear,” which at the time featured Man-Thing, a swamp creature charged with guarding the Nexus of All Realities, a place where various universes come together.
The story took an unexpected turn, however, when a talking, cigar-smoking waterfowl from another dimension came through the Nexus and found himself trapped on Earth, a planet populated by, as Howard put it, “hairless apes.”
Gerber didn’t plan for Howard the Duck to be anything more than a one-off character. But Howard quickly developed a following, which led to his appearing in more comics and, eventually, getting his own monthly title and a Sunday newspaper strip, all of which Gerber scripted.
Maybe Howard didn’t fit in on a planet full of humans and superheroes, but he definitely seemed at home in the cynical post-Watergate, post-Vietnam world of the ’70s. He was a voice of reason trapped in a world he never made.
Despite being a duck, Howard was an everyman. Evanier writes that Gerber’s “Howard the Duck” is, in fact, “obviously autobiographical to a large degree.” Except, of course, for all of the time Howard spent fighting a bizarre array of costumed supervillains. Gerber’s comics were as much a commentary on the absurdities of superhero comics as on the real world’s foibles.
Howard even ran for president of the United States, a story arc that Marvel turned into a successful publicity stunt.
During this period, Gerber also wrote other comics. He had a memorable run on “The Defenders,” which featured characters like the Hulk and Dr. Strange. He also created “Omega the Unknown,” a short-lived series that made a major impression on at least one young reader — future “Fortress of Solitude” novelist Jonathan Lethem, who currently is writing a new “Omega” miniseries.
Howard the Duck’s success, however, ultimately led to Gerber’s departure from Marvel and a lawsuit about ownership of the character. The parties settled, but afterward Gerber worked only sporadically in comics, for Marvel and other publishers. He also wrote for television, creating the popular 1980s Saturday-morning cartoon “Thundarr the Barbarian.”
Eventually, Gerber returned to his most famous creation. Marvel’s adult-oriented MAX imprint published Gerber’s six-issue “Howard the Duck” miniseries in 2002.
At the time of his death, Gerber was writing a “Dr. Fate” series for DC Comics. But his legacy will remain intertwined with his fowl creation, Howard, and with turning comic-book superheroics on its head.
That’s not a bad legacy to have, even if George Lucas didn’t quite get it.